Setting and Landscape in W. H. Auden's Poetry

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Influence of Rilke:

      Since the latter 'thirties', the influence of Rilke, the German poet has greatly strengthened and extended Auden's manipulation of landscape for the expression of human life. For example, in the following verse in the manner of Rilke, geography and landscape have been used to symbolise spiritual and mental states. Lost in my wake the archipelago Islands of self through which I sailed all day.

His Landscape was Symbolic:

      Auden's landscape, his topography, is always political, economic and psychological. The landscape of The Prologue to Look Stronger the opening chorus of The Dog beneath the skin' and the poem 29th of poems of 1930 can be mentioned for example. In this poem the wealthy residents of the Sport Hotel are envisaged.

Since the latter 'thirties', the influence of Rilke, the German poet has greatly strengthened and extended Auden's manipulation of landscape for the expression of human life. For example, in the following verse in the manner of Rilke, geography and landscape have been used to symbolise spiritual and mental states. Lost in my wake the archipelago Islands of self through which I sailed all day.
W. H. Auden

      ...consellated at reserved tables supplied with feelings by an efficient hand Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs. Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

      Auden is aware of the landscape mainly as it reinforces his sociology. So, in Spain-before reaching the powerful final section his glance traces this:

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot.
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe,
On that table land scored by rivers,
Our fever's menacing shapes are precise and alive.

      This wide-ranging eye, this proocupation with what is happening in the fastnesses of Abyssinia or the ghettoes of Poland, give him a width of allusion which most of his contemporaries lack whatever happens, it was quite unforgettable to him that he is involved in the sickness of western civilization; he must help where he can. Praise of Limestone, Paysage Moralise, and the seven lyrics of Beucioles, all use landscape and the features of geography symbolically.

Auden's barren Landscape:

      Auden likes all places, scenes and landscapes. To quote Auden, "My heart has stamped on the view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton". He is deeply attached to the English landscape. He likes industrial landscapes, "densely packed landscape" which are pockmarked with the evidence of intensive human endeavour and ingenuity - "the soiled productive cities" of the Black country, the mining areas, the Lancashire cotton-belt, (he once said that the view of Lancashire's mills from the top of the Pennines was one of the finest man-made sights in the world). "Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, that was, and is, my ideal scenery, he wrote. And such landscapes bring home to him that man is a maker, a struggling but invisible creature using mind and hands and making a home wherever there is a suitable space to settle.

      This interest dominates almost all of Auden's geographical passages. He is only rarely interested in natural scenes for or in themselves; his geography is almost always humane, economic or political geography (as in Macao or Spain). His landscape is a back cloth to human activity.

The technique of stark Landscape:

      In Auden's landscape we find a decay in the individual psyche in or in the social sphere which is mirrored in nature. In many of his poems there is the use of "storms", of the "loud and man", of "falling leaves", and the "flooded football ground". The technique resembles the Elizabethan device of making tempests and natural prodigies reflect human tragedy. To quote Davison, "There is something theatrical and artificial in this device, because it is not now based on a genuine belief in the correspondence of the natural world with the human and today we accept more easily".

      Auden rarely refers to what might be called typical sussex countryside or to that kind of landscape which we often find in Tennyson. Auden preferred the landscape to be bare-bleakly bare and the landscape cluttered with the evidence of man's industrial toil. The bare landscape becomes symbolic for him. Auden, by instinct thinks through images of landscape. He speaks of "Village of the heart," "suburbs of fear" and "our landscape of pain" so easily that it seems almost automatic.

Auden's landscape: symbolically related


      Auden has a mind which naturally makes patterns and symbols. Sometimes the symbol is extended over a whole passage or a whole poem as in the "well-known poem", "In praise of Limestone". In the wilder parts of Narthumbia the urgent questions which have never since been stilled is felt first. The bare and wild uplands, yielding to a "green and civil life" below, symbolise man's original savagery and his "faulting into consciousness". Auden's main interest was not to tame a savage nature but to understand himself. So there is an urge,

....That drives
us into knowledge all our lives,
The far interior of our fate
To civilise and to create.

Auden's Landscape : lonely wanderer:

      His landscapes are quite different from Wordsworth's fields of nature. In the Quest Sonnets there is a wanderer, i.e. a man on a Quest. He is a typical man (wanderer). He is an isolated man in this world. The wanderer appears in many forms. In the earliest poems he takes the guise of the Airman, or the Leader of the Hawk. The Airman, is physically isolated because he surveys from the great height the interesting things observed by him on the land below. He tries to see a possible order in the muddled life of the people moving on the land. He tries to bring the disorder into order. Hence we come to the conclusion that Auden's world is very topsy-turvy which he endeavours to arrange or give a proper order. But he is detached and also clinical. The Airman is humanitarian and compassionate but he is helpless.

      The wanderer moves in the guise of various forms. But his landscapes are very empty. They are mere plains, mountains and the various spaces of the sea. Hence his landscapes are very typical. In his prose work, The Enchafed Flood (1951) he narrates about sea and deserts imagery. These wanderers are symbolical. In his operas (libretto) he narrates The Rake's Progress. According to Auden this Rake became a wanderer across this face of the world. Hence Auden's heroes and heroines are not solitary persons as those treated by romantic poets.

Nature: A mere background

      Auden has used nature as merely a background. When man moves in his poetry, he does not observe the beauties of nature, Man is a Simple figure moving amongst the various objects of the world. Like Wordsworth, he does not humanise nature. Nature imparts a separate life, a soul of its own. Nature teaches so many morals when we read romantic poets. Scenes of romantic nature is very fascinating. enchanting in Wordsworth's poetry. In Auden's poetry, landscapes may be very barren as they have no attraction for the poet. Society is very cruel to man. So, he is quite indifferent to landscape which may be fascinating and reveal the mysteries of life. Man is a primitive figure in his poetry. He writes in one verse as illustrated below:

To me art's subject is the human clay,
And landscape but the background to a tarso.

      He portrays the crude realities of life. He observes human elements in a natural scene. His only object is to concentrate on the inner recesses of man. So, there is a terseness in his poetry, where there is no affection, sentiments and fellow-feelings. There is a pervasive human interest which is very Sordid and unenchanting. So, there is no activity between man and nature. He has written a few poems like Look Strangers where he gives natural description. Infact his poetry does not reveal any reciprocal activity between man and nature. He does not go to nature to solve the problems of the world. In the twentieth century man is engulfed with so many incurable mental disorders. Marx has showed him the way of solving the problem by controlling the super ego. Auden took refuge in Freud to diagnose the impact of illness on man. Hence landscape is insignificant as man is saturated with the evil device of society.

Conclusion:

      His landscapes are desolate with desolate machinery. He is concerned with the social activities which are highly mechanical. The society is tortuous. So landscape appears to be monotonous in human life. There is no activity on the landscape. According to a well-known critic those landscapes are "dismantled wasting flour", "disused factories", worked-out mines", "ramshackle engines" "derelict iron works on deserted coats", "tramlines and slag heaps pieces of machinery".

Following are the Highlights of Auden's Setting and Landscape:

(i) Auden is aware of the landscape mainly as it reinforces his sociology. Whatever happens, he cannot forget that he is implicated in the sickness of western' civilisation. So in Spain-before reaching the powerful final section-his glance traces this:

on that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe,
On that tableland scored by rivers,
our fever's mancing shapes are precise and alive.

      This particular use of landscape he learnt from Rilke. In Auden's poetry, landscape and geography have been used as the symbols of the human condition and the human psyche.

(ii) Auden's real subject is man and his day-to-day activity and nature is merely the setting for that activity.

To me art's subject is the human clay,
And Landscape but the background to a torso,

      So nature and other object of nature are used to provide illustration and imagery for the human condition. He never personifies nature or impart to her a separate life or soul of her own. To quote Richard Hoggart. "There is the Auden view - the pervasive human interest and comment informed by it." Even in the Look stranger, which is one of the few poems of natural description, Auden brings man and his activity towards the end.

(iii) Auden's landscapes are stark and bare. The technique resembles the Elizabethan device (called a pathetic Fallacy" by Ruskin) of making natural phenomena such as 'falling leaves' 'storms', flooded football ground, as the decay in the individual psyche or in the social sphere.

(iv) Sometimes Auden's natural scenery is volcanic or glacial - the land of the Icelandic sagas and of much Anglo-Saxon verse, the land of the moraine and the glacial flood, a region whose barrenness is broken only by rocks, the Northern Pennine country with which he became familiar early in life during his upland tours, Auden was deeply attached to English Landscape also. This English landscapes bring home to him that man is a maker, a struggling but inventive creature using mind and hand wherever there is a suitable place to settle.

(v) Landscape that we find in Tennyson has rarely been referred by Auden. He prefers his landscape to be bleakly bare. His bare and upland settings are especially mountainous regions. Auden thinks through images of landscape. He speaks of "village of the heart", "suburbs of fear" and "our landscape of pain".

(vi) The figure of a wanderer, the isolated man on a search appears more frequently than any other in Auden's poetry. He is physically isolated. He surveys from a great height the interesting but muddled life of those below. The wanderer can take many forms. In his earliest verse he is an Airman, and then in the later poems the wanderer moves across vast and empty landscapes - plains, mountains, the spaces of the sea.

(vii) So the reader might follow the various appearance of landscape in Auden's poetry. His landscapes are "the symbols of human dilemmas though he had not deliberately tried to make them into symbols". A group of Auden's poems is called "Bucolics," poems about landscapes.

(viii) The bare and wild uplands that yield to a "green and civil life" symbolise man's original savagery and his "faltering into consciousness". Auden's main interest lies in man's attempt to understand the savage. The influence of Rilke, the German poet, has extended Auden's expression of human life.

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